Marveling at Enneagram Three to Write Better Characters

Any personality system can provide inspiration for writing fictional characters, but I find the Enneagram especially useful because it focuses on fears, desires, and flaws. Really, the flaws are what makes a character interesting in the first place, because they’re usually what gets him in trouble. They’re what flame the conflict, whether it’s inner turmoil or tension with other characters. 

Today, we’re continuing our series on the Enneagram with Type Three, often referred to as the Achiever or Performer. And if any Marvel character focuses on his achievements and self image, it’s Doctor Strange.

Ancient One: “Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all.”

Doctor Strange: “Which is?”

Ancient One: “It’s not about you.”

Motivations and Fears

Twos, Threes, and Fours are feelings-oriented people who don’t believe they can be loved for who they are. Threes are afraid of being worthless, and believe that being (or appearing) successful is the only way to prove their value. They love impressing others with what they can do. They struggle with deceit—which sometimes manifests as deceiving others, but more often it’s about deceiving themselves.

At the beginning of his self-titled film, Doctor Strange is incredibly successful as a surgeon. People seem to know his name. Medical requests come to him from all over, and he has to pick and choose who he wants to operate on. He refuses to regularly work in the ER because he’s more interested in making medical history than saving “one drunk idiot with a gun.”

As he’s driving, his assistant phones him and lists off potential cases. He refuses the first case presented to him, because fifty other doctors could help with it so he doesn’t think it’s worth his time. He refuses the next one because the patient has an advanced brain stem glioma, and he “doesn’t want to screw up [his] perfect record.”

Consider what that short bit of dialogue tells us about Strange’s character: he refuses to try helping someone because operating won’t help his social status, and because there’s a good chance he’ll fail. His image matters to him. His self-worth is tied to his job.

As the movie continues, he runs his car off the road and wakes up in a hospital bed. Doctor Strange has to face his fear of being worthless when his hands are damaged in a car accident. His entire identity had been swallowed up by being a surgeon, and when he loses his ability to do surgery, he is angry, frustrated, and lost.

Obstacles and Desires

These are the descriptors commonly used to describe Threes:

  • Driven
  • Image-conscious
  • Self-assured
  • Charming
  • Ambitious
  • Competent
  • Diplomatic

Threes may tell themselves that success is all that matters, even at the expense of love, family, or morals.

Success may mean different things to different Threes—to some, it’s having lots of money. To others, it’s fame, distinguishing themselves in an academic field, or becoming a paragon of religion. Doctor Strange defines his success through his career as a surgeon, and he has the expensive car and fancy apartment to prove it.

One of the best obstacles to throw in front of a Three is to take away their ability to be “successful”—whatever that means to them. When you damage their self-image, they don’t know who they are anymore. They enter into a crisis of identity. And, of course, they become incredibly stressed.

Stress and Security

When a Three feels stressed, they behave like an unhealthy Nine, as exemplified in the Enneagram Institute diagram. They may disassociate from everything that matters, retreating from relationships or lacking motivation to do anything.

Doctor Strange’s obstinance is front and centre in his stress. He’s impatient with the healing process, wanting to get better faster. Rather than lacking motivation, he pursues any possibility, any experimental procedure that might help him. He’s as arrogant as ever, speaking down to his doctors. He refuses to believe that his hands can’t be healed, because if he accepts that then he has to let go of his successful self-image.

Though his ex-girlfriend Christine cares about him and tries to help him through his turmoil, he lashes out at her too.

Christine Palmer: Some things just can’t be fixed.

Doctor Strange: Life without my work…

Christine Palmer
: Is still life. This isn’t the end. There are other things that can give your life meaning.

Doctor Strange
: [Spitefully]Like what? Like you?

Christine Palmer
: And this is the part where you apologize.

Doctor Strange
: This is the part where you leave.

I remember gasping in the theatre at these lines, because they’re so callous. But, even though Doctor Strange is arrogant and cruel, we’re still attached to his character and want to see what happens to him because we understand his inner turmoil. We want to see his character change for the better.

Character Development

Stagnant characters are boring characters. Use the Enneagram’s descriptions of what a type looks like at healthy, average, and unhealthy levels to plan a character arc. There are nine levels of development (not to be confused with the nine different types of personalities)—one to three being the most healthy, four to six being average, and seven to nine being unhealthy. These levels of development can help you decide where you want your character to start and how their personality progresses. (Are they unhealthy at first and move up to healthy? Are they average and improve? Are they healthy and become unhealthy? Do they move up and down the scale?)

Doctor Strange is somewhere between Average and Unhealthy at the start of the movie—wanting to impress others, desiring complete control, concerning himself with success, and fearing failure. He doesn’t appear to have any meaningful relationships or friendships. His character growth throughout the film involves learning humility and accepting that there are other ways he can impact the world. He doesn’t have to be a famous, successful surgeon to have value.

The Ancient One confronts him with a choice: to return to his own life or serve something greater than himself.

Doctor Strange: So, I could have my hands back again? My old life?

Ancient One: You could. And the world would be all the lesser for it.

In the end, Doctor Strange chooses to serve others, dying again and again in a fight against the movie’s villain, Dormammu. He becomes more open to the possibility of friends and relationships, warming up to Christine and Mordo. He hasn’t entirely lost his arrogant personality, his sarcasm, his stubbornness (characters’ personalities should not completely shift even though they grow to become better people). But he has learned to put aside his own desires for the sake of others, and that’s what makes him a hero.

Bringing your Three to a decision point, where they have to choose themselves or others, can be an impactful conclusion to their growth.

If you decide your character is an Achiever, I hope my thoughts on Enneagram Threes and Doctor Strange help you in your character development. Use this tool to consider not just what they do, but why they do it. For further research, check out Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery by Don Richard Riso.

< Read “Marveling at Enneagram Two to Write Better Characters”

Read “Marveling at Enneagram Four to Write Better Characters” >

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